Director: Sébastien Marnier
Writers: Fanny Burdino and Sébastien Marnier
Stars: Laure Calamy, Doria Tillier, Dominique Blanc
Synopsis: A woman on the verge of financial collapse attempts to reconnect with her wealthy, estranged father and his new family.
On the international festival circuit, American filmgoers are typically exposed to sophisticated, highly experimental arthouse fare. The likes of Philippe Garrel, Jacques Doillon, and Luc Moullet attract passionate followings within the relatively closed off world inhabited by dedicated cinephiles. However, these films generally struggle to reach a wider audience in the United States. Your average non-cinephile is quick to stereotype foreign films as artsy fartsy, pretentious nonsense. This means that it’s exceedingly rare for genuine commercial blockbusters to gain a foothold in the American market. For every A Man and a Woman (1966), there are dozens of hit films that fail to strike a nerve outside of a domestic setting. This contradiction often comes into play when one surveys the landscape of modern French cinema. There are plenty of great potboilers and romantic comedies being churned out in France but you wouldn’t know it if you walked into your local multiplex.
Sébastien Marnier’s The Origin of Evil (2022) is the sort of film that gets pushed out of the American market because arbitrary labels get attached to any and all foreign language films. It tells the twisty tale of the wealthy Dumontet family, which is headed by Serge (Jacques Weber), a commanding patriarch who regards his family members as vultures circling around his increasingly frail body. He will leave behind a valuable estate and when his secret lovechild Stéphane (Laure Calamy) appears on his doorstep, claiming that she wants to get close to her long lost father, it puts everyone on edge. His wife Louise (Dominique Blanc) and daughter George (Doria Tiller), regard her as an avaricious interloper who will try to steal their share of the inheritance left behind by Serge. While attempting to endear herself to Serge, Stéphane begins to wonder whether his relatives are actively plotting his downfall and comes to understand that she has unwittingly placed herself in the line of fire.
As in any good thriller about morally vacuous rich people who are driven to commit increasingly perverse acts in their quest to increase their social status, the cast serves as a big selling point. Everyone from Calamy to Blanc goes big and with good reason. The film’s plot is so preposterous that the characters need to operate on a slightly heightened plane, where everyone lives their life as though they’re performing a farce on stage. It’s a real joy to see Calamy, who has already proven herself to be a masterful comedienne, return to her roots. In recent years, she has become better known for her work in gritty character studies and crime dramas, and while it’s gratifying to see her display her full range, it’s pleasant to see her weaponize the feisty charm that so endeared her to audiences back in the early 2010s. This slightly ditzy quality also allows her to play off against the hard-nosed, severe Weber in an effective manner.
Beyond its ensemble cast, The Origin of Evil also boasts delightfully ostentatious production design and a rhythmic score that sets the tone for the entire film. The filmmakers work to immerse you in the nerve-racking situation that Stéphane finds herself trapped in, while also throwing in a couple of unexpected grace notes. However, the screenplay is guilty of under-developing many of the juicy plot points that get doled out over the course of the film’s first hour. As it hurtles into its third act, Marnier’s handling of tone and pacing gets a bit shakier. All of a sudden, it feels as though thorny, difficult subplots are being wrapped up rather too neatly. Perhaps this points to the fact that this sort of plot-heavy thriller is better suited to the needs of long-form storytelling. One can easily imagine a three hour cut of this film that has more time to linger on the high points in the film’s plot. As it is, the film ends up concluding right at the point when it seemed like things were really starting to heat up. Unfortunately, it comes as a real disappointment at the end of two hours of cracking entertainment.